Abstract: Parenting with Precarity: Parenting Youth in Foster Care Navigate Placement Instability during the Transition to Parenthood (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Parenting with Precarity: Parenting Youth in Foster Care Navigate Placement Instability during the Transition to Parenthood

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kristen Ethier, MA, Researcher, University of Chicago
Amy Dworsky, PhD, Research Fellow, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Elissa Gitlow, MSW, Researcher, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: Young mothers in foster care are faced with multiple, often simultaneous developmental transitions to parenthood, to adulthood, and to exiting the child welfare system (Courtney 2009; Pryce and Samuels 2010). However, scholarship on  pregnant and parenting youth in foster care has largely focused on their risk for adverse life course outcomes, and on their children’s risk for intergenerational child maltreatment (Putnam-Hornstein, Cederbaum, King, Cleveland, et al. 2013).  Comparatively little attention has been paid to how young mothers’ experiences of how the child welfare system shapes their parenting.  Further, the persistent focus on risk detracts attention from the broader social forces, including systemic racism, normative conceptions of motherhood, and the structure of the child welfare system, that shape the experiences of youth mothers in foster care. This paper uses a reproductive justice framework which centers the voices of multiply marginalized pregnant and parenting people using an intersectional, Black feminist lens (Ross and Solinger 2017). Specifically, this paper addresses the extent to which child welfare placement instability impacts young mothers in care, who are primarily mothers of color, during pregnancy and early parenting development.

Methods: This qualitative, narrative study uses data from in-depth interviews with 29 parenting youth in foster care who are participating in an evaluation of the Illinois Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Care Home Visiting Pilot.  The sample includes young mothers who were in foster care and either pregnant or parenting a child under age one at the time of enrollment. The study sample is predominantly first time mothers (n = 28) who are African American (n=25). Their ages range from 15 to 21-years-old.

Findings: Placement instability is a key feature of the transition to parenthood for pregnant and parenting youth in care. Young mothers make meaning of frequent placement moves, going “on the run” to see family and friends, or being placed far from their children who are, in a handful of cases (N=6), also in foster care. Among this sample of young mothers of color, navigating placement instability shapes parenting in terms of accessing consistent support services, proximity to social supports, and accessing material resources both inside and outside of the child welfare system.

Conclusion and Implications: This study contributes to our empirical knowledge of the transition to parenthood for young parents in care, particularly for young mothers of color who fact multiple forms of marginalization, including at the intersections of race, class, and child welfare system involvement. One of the tenets of the reproductive justice framework is ensuring the human right to parent in safe and healthy environments. The findings suggest a need for child welfare providers to promote placement stability and to reduce barriers to social support for young parents and their infants. They also highlight the need for additional investigation of how young parents experience child welfare system policies and practices during the transition to parenthood.